SSF reconsiders red light cameras


This is a tale of three cities and their red light cameras. South San Francisco and San Carlos were ready to scrap their program to catch red light runners for different reasons, just as Belmont gets ready to launch one of its own.

At Ralston Avenue and West El Camino Real -- one of Belmont's busiest intersections -- Belmont will start operating a red light camera on Thursday or Friday. Belmont expects to make a lot of money, unlike its neighbors.

"I'm really inclined to end the program," said South San Francisco Mayor Mark Addiego.

Addiego's position should come as no surprise. South San Francisco's red light cameras on two of its major intersections have cost, not made, the city lots of money.

About 5,000 drivers have had their tickets dismissed since the cameras began operating last August, all because the city forgot to ratify the contract with the camera manufacturer in a public meeting, as required by law.

Those who paid their $300 to $500 fines are also getting refunds.

"Initially it was $1,500,000 and we did refund people for their traffic school," said Addiego.

Plus, it's costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars processing the refunds and voiding tickets mostly for violators who were tagged making rolling right turns. No wonder Addiego expects a big crowd who want the cameras to go.

"A strong, strong majority of people encourage me to do that every day," said Addiego.

In neighboring San Carlos, its red light cameras mean more red ink for a city so strapped for cash. It's even thinking of contracting out its police services.

When the cameras began operating at one intersection, they were nabbing 10 drivers a day. The city became a victim of its own success.

"We've reduced red light violations by 87 percent at that intersection and now we're down to about less than two a day," said San Carlos Police Chief Greg Rothaus.

So now, the city is paying more to operate the cameras than it's getting in ticket revenue.

"Right now, we're basically about $2,000 a month upside down in the program," said Rothaus.

Ironically, its neighbor Belmont will begin operating its first red light cameras by the end of this week. Workers on Wednesday were putting the finishing touches on the system at two intersections.

"It is a process we've been going through for four years now. We've put a lot of work into it," said Belmont Police Capt. Dan DeSmidt.

San Carlos has already decided to shut down its cameras after its current contract with the camera manufacturer expires in about a year and a half.

Belmont says it needs to nab three drivers a day at the one intersection to make the system pay for itself. The rest is gravy.

11 PM UPDATE: South San Francisco's City Council voted to continue using the cameras.

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